January 15, 1995

Nicholson Has Always Risen To Challenge Of Special Roles From Lowly Start In Movies, He’s Become One Of The All-Time Greats

By The Spokesman-Review
 

John Huston probably had the final word on Jack Nicholson.

“He has a fine eye for good paintings and a good ear for fine music,” Huston once drawled. “And he’s a lovely man to drink with.”

There are worse epitaphs to be earned. Not that Nicholson needs to be eulogized. Born in 1937, he’s nowhere near the end of an incredibly varied and unusually rewarding career.

He demonstrated that in Mike Nichols’ “Wolf” (see capsule review below), which will be released Tuesday. Cast as Will Randal, a used-up man, Nicholson is resurrected after being bitten by a wolf.

In his own life, Nicholson came to serious attention in 1970 with “Easy Rider.” As a small-town lawyer intent on riding along with bikers Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, Nicholson provided the film with what intentional humor it boasted.

Before that breakthrough, Nicholson had acted in, helped write, partially produce and probably even helped sweep up the set on a number of low-budget productions.

But after “Easy Rider,” which earned him an Oscar nomination, Nicholson was set. Nine Oscar nominations and two awards (Best Actor in 1975 for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Best Supporting Actor in 1983 for “Terms of Endearment”) were to follow.

“Wolf” is hardly the best film he’s made; neither is it the worst. But considering the length of his career, Nicholson has starred in a surprising number of quality features. No doubt he’s earned a lot of money.

Maybe that’s why John Huston liked to drink with him. He always had enough money to pay his own way.

Following is a Jack Nicholson filmography:

“The Cry Baby Killer” (1958), “Too Soon to Love” (1960), “The Wild Ride” (1960), “Studs Lonigan” (1960), “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960), “The Broken Land” (1962), “The Raven” (1963), “The Terror” (1963), “Ensign Pulver” (1964), “Back Door to Hell” (1964), “Ride in the Whirlwind” (1965), “Flight to Fury” (1966), “The Shooting” (1967), “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” (1967), “Head” (1968), “Easy Rider” (1969), “Rebel Rousers” (1970), “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” (1970), “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “A Safe Place” (1971), “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972), “The Last Detail” (1973), “Chinatown” (1974), “Tommy” (1975), “The Passenger” (1975), “The Fortune” (1975), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “The Missouri Breaks” (1976), “The Last Tycoon” (1976), “Goin’ South” (1978), “The Shining” (1980), “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981), “Reds” (1981), “The Border” (1982), “Terms of Endearment” (1983), “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), “Heartburn” (1986), “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987), “Broadcast News” (1987), “Ironweed” (1987), “Batman” (1989), “The Two Jakes” (1990), “Man Trouble” (1992), “A Few Good Men” (1992), “Hoffa” (1992), “Wolf” (1994).

What’s new to view

The week’s releases (dates are tentative):

Tuesday - “Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow” (Warner), “Wolf” (Columbia TriStar), “Trial by Jury” (Warner), “Next Door” (Columbia TriStar), “The Shadow” (MCA/Universal).

Thursday - “The Mask” (New Line).

The Mask

**

More ambitious than Jim Carrey’s debut film “Ace Ventura,” this mix of comedy and voodoo wish fulfillment tends to lose its humorous edge in the third reel. Carrey plays a meek bank clerk (in movies, are there any other kind?) who does the Dr. Jekyll thing: He can be what he wants to be, as long as he wears a magical mask that turns him into a cartoon-like, ‘40s-era hipster.

But ambition here is both good and bad. It’s good because it indicates that there might be depth behind Carrey’s goofy features. It’s bad because the film itself doesn’t explore that depth so much as simply get bogged down by it. While Carrey remains an acquired taste, the film - despite problems - boasts overall special effects that are amazing. Rated PG-13.

Wolf

**

Mike Nichols continues his slide into the ranks of second-rate filmmakers with this silly bit of werewolf trivia. Jack Nicholson plays a weatherbeaten New York book editor who, once bitten by a stray wolf (in Vermont?), begins to exhibit wolfish tendencies - seeing without his glasses, developing a taste for rare meat and young women, especially the daughter (Michelle Pfeiffer) of a ruthless publisher (Christopher Plummer).

There’s a metaphor at work here: Screenwriters Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick work hard to say something about the need for continual self-rejuvenation. But that message gets lost in the midst of Nichols’ heavy-handed direction, in Nicholson’s ham-handed acting and in Harrison-Strick’s hand-medown script that ends up being a male fantasy, merely clever and hardly convincing. Rated R.

The Shadow

* 1/2

This is a ‘30s period piece that attempts to capture the mood and thematic campiness of Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy.” But while that cartoon creation failed to become more than a clever concept, this dark-toned fantasy piece isn’t even clever. Alec Baldwin, who is great in select roles (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), is no Lamont Cranston. And Penelope Ann Miller (“Carlito’s Way”) lacks both the talent and the shape to play Cranston’s love interest.

The film does boast some specialeffects wizardry, but it’s not enough to make up for a script that can’t decide whether it wants to be funny, serious or merely stupid. Mostly it settles for the latter. Rated PG.

Trial by Jury

*

The supporting cast is impressive - William Hurt, Armand Assante, Gabriel Byrne - which begs a questions: How do such talented actors get involved in such secondrate productions? In this implausible courtroom drama, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer stars as a juror in the racketeering trial of a New York mobster (Assante).

Targeted by the defense as an easy mark, she is threatened by a conscience-stricken, crooked cop (Hurt) unless she bucks the ambitious prosecutor (Byrne) and holds out for acquittal. Nothing surprising occurs, though, and the heavier issues - What is real power? Who wields it? Who gets caught in the middle? - are left hanging. Rated R.


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